From the Children’s Friend, December 1951 –
A Mountain Boy’s Christmas Gift
By Etta W. Schlichter
“There was a fine ship in the North Countree,
It went by the name of the Golden Vanitee,
And it sailed upon the lowlands, lowlands low,
It sailed upon the lowlands low.
“O Captain, O Captain, what will you give to me
If I’ll go and sink the ship of the Weeping Willow Tree
As she sails upon the lowlands, lowlands low,
As she sails upon the lowlands low?
“Oh, I will give you lands and I will give you store,
And you shall have my daughter Jane when you return to shore,
If you’ll sink her in the lowlands, lowlands low,
If you’ll sink her in the lowlands low.”
“That’s a funny song,” said Ralph, as he and his father stood still, having heard a boy’s voice singing.
Ralph and his father and mother had come to the mountains for their vacation and he and Daddy had gone pretty far up the mountain from their camp. Ahead of them they saw a little cabin and then they heard the song and stopped to listen. Ralph knew what it meant when Daddy motioned him to hush. It was a mountain ballad the boy was singing and Daddy was very anxious to hear all of those ballads he could.
Suddenly the song stopped. Ralph had stepped on a stick and it had crackled. The mountain boy’s quick ear had caught the sound and he, too, stopped to listen.
Ralph stepped from behind the underbrush and smiled. “What’s your name?” he asked the mountain lad.
“Jeff Sawyer,” said the boy. “What’s yours?”
“Ralph Page. That was a funny song. What’s the rest of it?”
“That’s a ballad,” answered Jeff, but he wouldn’t sing any more.
“We don’t sing that kind of songs where I live,” said Ralph. “Do you know any more?”
“Uh, huh,” nodded Jeff.
Ralph had heard his father talk of the mountain ballads, which he said the mountaineers called ballets. Mr. page had said these mountain children had no songs of the kind we sing nowadays unless they could go to school, and many of them could not do that because there were no schools near. And they had no story books. So these old ballads, which were really stories set to music, took the place of both story and song, and the children as well as grown people loved them.
These ballads were very old, many of them brought over from England over two hundred years ago.
The two boys eyed each other. Something about each one of them drew the other. They both smiled and that meant they were going to be friends.
“I’ll sing you one of our kind of songs if you’ll sing me another of yours,” said Ralph.
“You go first,” laughed Jeff.
Mr. Page kept among the trees for fear his presence might make the mountain lad shy.
“We sing this a lot,” said Ralph, and began in his clear soprano –
“My country, ‘tis of thee.”
Jeff’s eyes shone. “Why, I know that. We sing it in school.”
“Where is your school?” asked Ralph. In all his tramps over the mountains he had never seen anything that looked like a schoolhouse.
“Down yon,” answered Jeff, waving his arm. “Some women folks keep hit. Hit’s a mission.”
Ralph wondered why Jeff said “hit” for “it.” He learned afterwards that most of the mountain people said “hit,” and that everybody did away back hundreds of years ago. The mountain people just hadn’t changed the fashion as others had.
“This is one we learned in school,” said Ralph. “Have you had this one? It’s in our new book.
“Wind, you’re in the treetops,
Wind, you’re in the grass …”
I never heard anybody talk to the wind,” interrupted Jeff.
“No,” said Ralph, “it’s just a song.”
“Our songs happened,” said Jeff. “There’s one about Barb’ra Allen.
“All in the merry month of May,
When green buds they were swelling
Young Jenny Grove on his death bed lay
For love of Barb’ra Allen.”
“Sounds solemn,” said Ralph. “Are they all solemn?”
“I don’t know,” said Jeff doubtfully. He had never thought how mournful the ancient ballads were. To him they were just wonderful stories.
“They all seem to die,” commented Ralph.
“Not all,” said Jeff. “There’s –
“‘Can she make a cherry pie, Billy Boy, billy Boy?’”
Jeff soon learned a number of Ralph’s school songs, but it is doubtful if he liked them as well as he did the story songs of the mountains. He knew a lot of them. Sometimes his father and mother helped him sing them when Ralph came to the cabin.
All too soon the summer ended. Ralph went back to town to school and Jeff returned to the mission. Then one wonderful day something happened. Down the mountain was the general store and in a corner of the store was a tiny postoffice. The Sawyers never asked for any mail. Who would there be to write to them? Their friends were all in the mountains. But this wonderful day Mr. Sawyer had gone to the store and the storekeeper, who was a postmaster also, handed him a package. It was marked “Master Jeff Sawyer.” The postmaster read the address aloud.
“That can’t be Jeff’s,” said Mr. Sawyer, puzzled. “Jeff’s nobody’s master.”
“Hit be, though,” said the postmaster. ‘Hit says ‘From Ralph Page,’ here in the corner. That’s that ‘ere boy that was here all summer.”
So Mr. Sawyer doubtfully took the package to Jeff. Wild with excitement, Jeff opened it. It was the first thing he had ever had come through the mail in his life. Tearing off the wrapper, he found a book. It was a book of songs, the kind that Ralph had sung, and it had notes. Jeff knew the notes. They were teaching him music now at the mission school.
But his delight in receiving the book was quickly followed by keen regret. No mountain boy likes to receive something for nothing. He does not understand gifts. He could not keep this book and not send something in return. But what? Jeff had never had a penny in his life. He had never before owned a book. The books he used in school belonged to the mission. Whatever could he send to Ralph when he owned nothing himself except a rabbit he had tamed?
More and more troubled he grew until at last Miss Martha, his teacher, noticed it. It was a long time before even Miss Martha could learn what was the matter. Jeff kept his troubles to himself. But at last it all came out, and Miss Martha just smiled and said, “Why, Jeff, I know the very nicest thing you can send Ralph. I’ll show you how to fix it. It won’t go through the mail, but I am going home for Christmas and I’m going right through Ralph’s town in my little car. I’ll take your present along and give it to him for you.”
Jeff could hardly believe is senses. But he and Miss Martha worked together and this is what Ralph found at the door when the bell rang the day before Christmas – a lovely little spruce tree not over three feet high. He recognized it. It had grown near the Sawyers’ cabin. Hanging from the branches of the tree were neatly folded slips of paper. Ralph took one off and unfolded it.
“Daddy, look!” he cried. how he and Mr. Page had wished they had these mountain ballads in print! And here they were, neatly typed on the slips of paper, all the ones that Ralph had learned and was afraid he would forget. Miss Martha had done them for Jeff on her typewriter.
On the top of the tree was another slip of paper, but this was in Jeff’s own handwriting. It read, “From Jeff to Ralph.”
“Oh, Daddy!” cried Ralph, “isn’t that a wonderful present? Much nicer than anything that could be bought. Now I’ll know Jeff’s songs when we go next summer, and he’ll know mine.”